I am a believer in the principle of tithing. As I have written elsewhere, there is an important perspective to be had in deciding that you have enough and can return something to the Lord.
However, I recently listened to some women discuss their decisions to allocate tithing to organizations other than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was struck with an observation that I have been unable to shake. They were experiencing an emotion that I have not felt within church settings as they decided how to direct their resources: joy in exercising agency and making decisions. I want to feel that joy.
Agency matters to our happiness. We know this. Church lessons repeatedly stress that agency is essential to our growth and development. In my experience, though, the agency offered to women within the church often feels like the choice to conform with prescriptions, roles and budgetary decisions made or ultimately approved by men. However much we say we value agency, there’s always a script: You are free to make the right choice. Agency comes with caveats, particularly for Latter-day Saint women.
Women are frequently told to stop seeking permission, but this is easier said than done because Latter-day Saint women also live within a context in which they, in fact, require (and can lose) male permission to access resources, authority, the temple, and priesthood blessings within church settings. Sisters must have permission and authority delegated by men to act officially within the church. They must be deemed worthy to enter temples by two men asking questions drafted by men. They are excluded from leadership positions that do not pertain exclusively to women and children, including positions like financial clerk that have little to do with priesthood functions. Women who followed the prophetic counsel to stay home often also depend on men for their financial maintenance.
Some practical implications of this structure are that I have never seen a ward budget. I do not know how my tithing or fast offering money is spent. I do not even have a way to contact general authorities beyond my stake president, a regional lay leader who is not required to pass on any communication to higher-ups, in order to share my perspectives or ideas. We are raising young women who understand their potential, but we do not offer enough adult women an organization in which they can fully use their talents and exercise agency.
Some women I know will, of course, disagree with this statement. I am glad that the church is meeting their needs. I would simply suggest, however, that we have a problem when a significant number of women perceive the situation as I do. This problem cannot be rectified by protesting too much over the pulpit that women who want more are wrong in their perceptions or by reassuring them that they really are equal and loved. Too many of my peers have voted with their feet. As I begin my 40s, I am largely alone among my closest friends in remaining active in the church.
When the personal and the prophetic clash
The church teaches personal revelation, but it also teaches members to follow the prophet. It’s unclear which of these principles trumps when they clash. Sometimes, we are reminded that general authorities give only “general” and not personal advice. Other times, it is implied that our personal inspiration would not conflict with the prophet’s guidance if we were only more faithful.
Like all Latter-day Saint women of my generation, I was told by Ezra Taft Benson, a former church president, that righteous women should stay home and rear children — a prescription that was reinforced throughout the Young Women curriculum. Benson, of course, did not have to bear the consequences of his advice. But to this day, I feel doubt over decisions I have made about my career as well as constant judgment. A recent discussion by therapist Julie Hanks clarifies that I am not alone in struggling with the multigenerational legacies of Benson’s teachings on Latter-day Saint women and their families.
Like all members, I am asked to tithe to an organization that does not invite my views on how money I earned is best spent. Because I do not have sufficient resources to tithe and significantly donate to other charitable organizations, paying tithing to a patriarchal, centralized church means that I do not get to experience the growth and fulfillment that can occur when you give to and/or have decision-making power over an organization’s resources. Women in the early, more autonomous Relief Society often exercised greater authority over economic and spiritual resources at church than Latter-day Saint women do today.
I am grateful that women have not been told that they must serve missions, but I agonize over how to raise sons for whom serving missions is an expectation. I have frequently heard leaders say that men who are worthy will want to serve missions, with the implication that men who choose not to serve missions have sinned. This formulation leaves little room for genuine agency. In my house, missions will be framed as a choice.
I could cite further examples, such as modesty rhetoric and being told how to dress, in which women’s use of their bodies has been judged and constrained. The deepest questions of how I should direct my life, use my resources and occupy my body occur within an institutional context in which men have already decided the “right” answers.
I have rarely been trusted to seek my own revelation when I have questioned those answers or sought more than the roles in which men have placed me. Too often, I have been met with threats of discipline or asked to remain silent. I have been told that I do not understand the gospel. I have been labeled a complainer. Men and women have labeled me a complainer when I have suggested minor reforms. And people question whether such things have really occurred to me because women in the church are not trusted as authorities on their own experience.
Desires for a changed church
I want a church in which I can grow by making decisions and exercising authority, not a church in which I am simply asked to wait and follow. I cannot imagine who I would be within a church community that celebrated rather than constrained or shamed my agency, because I have never lived in one. I cannot imagine how it must feel to act on one’s righteous but unconventional desires without shame, guilt or receiving a lecture on how I have disappointed some man. I want something better for me.
My experience is valid. So is my desire to feel greater joy, agency and authority within church settings. I cannot wait another four decades for the church to become more inclusive of women, because my life is unfolding now.
Only men can make the institutional changes surrounding gender that I think we need. I can claim, however, my own agency to interpret teachings in ways that feel more empowering to me and consistent with the Spirit. I can also choose which messages I will (not) pass on.
Women who have experienced trauma in the past surrounding their agency might be unable to decide simply that they no longer need permission to act in a culture that requires them to seek it and truly feel that way. We minimize the harms we have systemically inflicted by requiring women to always ask a man when we fail to recognize that undoing such harm will require structural changes in addition to personal efforts.
However, I want to test the prospect that God loves me enough that he will continue to bless and inspire me even if I don’t comport with other people’s interpretations of his rules. I want to contribute to the church community I love. And I’m ready to believe that it is secure enough to accommodate the more empowered person I want to become.
Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer.
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